Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 318 pages; 2002.
I know you really shouldn’t buy books by their covers, but I fell in love with Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and thought it looked intriguing. The plot sounded fantastic too — slightly unusual, a siege situation set in an unspecified poor Latin American country, where those kept against their will begin to fall in love with each other (or, in once case, their captor), creating their own kind of heaven on earth despite the dire circumstances.
I had read one or two good reviews of the book in the Sunday newspapers and it had been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2002, so I thought I couldn’t go wrong. Unfortunately, I was mistaken.
I liked the premise of the story and the way it avoided turning a hostage situation into an all-action drama, but it needed more than just good characterisation (of which there is plenty) to sustain me for all of its 318 pages.
Opera buffs may disagree, because one of the central characters is a lyric soprano and the novel is filled with descriptions of her performances, her wonderful talent and the ways in which people gravitate towards her. But I found her totally unlikeable. Ditto for the Japanese businessman who falls in love with her. In fact, I don’t think I really liked any of the characters bar the translator, Gen, who spends his time interpreting for both the kidnappers and the hostages, flitting between them all and struggling to remain neutral throughout the whole ordeal.
The ending, predictably violent, is also disappointing — and I won’t even mention the epilogue which is tacky beyond description! It may be written with “great emotional delicacy”, as one reviewer called it, but I can’t understand why anyone would say it was a “literary novel you can’t put down”. Whenever I put it down, I found it a real struggle to pick up again . . .